Whether it's trying to help their team win a Super Bowl or secure their next big payday, these are the NFL players we think are feeling the most heat entering the 2013 season.
1. Darren McFadden, RB, Oakland Raiders
Believe it or not, Darren McFadden will only turn 26 in August even though he’s entering his sixth NFL season. The talent is clearly there for the former first-round pick (No. 4 overall in 2008), but he’s yet to put it all together for a complete season. He has yet to play in all 16 games in a season and has started more than 12 just twice.
After rushing for 1,157 yards in 2010, McFadden has posted a total of 1,321 yards on the ground in the last two seasons combined. Injuries have been largely to blame, including a Lisfranc foot injury that caused him to miss the final nine games in 2011. Last season, he missed four due to a high ankle sprain, but he also posted a career-worst 3.3 yards per carry in the 12 he played in.
McFadden is entering the final year of his contract, so this is clearly a critical season for him. The Raiders have ditched last season’s zone-blocking scheme in favor of a power running system implemented by new offensive coordinator Greg Olson, which should be a much better fit for McFadden. This should provide him with the perfect opportunity to showcase his talents, provided he can stay on the field.
Schaub, a two-time Pro Bowler with three 4,000-yard seasons to his credit, is firmly entrenched as the Texans’ starter. So why is he so high on this list? The two-time defending AFC South champions are considered one of the league’s top teams and Super Bowl contenders in 2013. Houston, however, has yet to advance past the AFC Divisional round of the playoffs and if it wants to reverse that trend this season, the passing game must step up.
Schaub’s career-high in touchdown passes is 29 and he tossed just 22 last season. He also has consistently come up short in the games that matter most. In the Texans’ five losses last season, including the playoff defeat in New England, Schaub threw a combined two touchdown passes and six interceptions. Houston has one of the league’s best running games led by Arian Foster, an All-Pro wide receiver in Andre Johnson, a Pro Bowl tight end in Owen Daniels and drafted Clemson wideout DeAndre Hopkins in the first round in April. Schaub has a solid offensive line protecting him and plenty of weapons at his disposal. It’s now on him to do his part and lead his team on a deep playoff run, before the Texans’ championship window closes.
Romo’s inclusion high on this list shouldn’t come as a shock. For starters, there are fewer NFL jobs that have a higher profile than the starting quarterback of “America’s Team.” Then there’s the matter of the six-year, $108 million contract extension Romo signed in March, which if anything, only adds to the pressure.
The Cowboys have missed the playoffs in each of the last three seasons. Romo, who missed 10 games because of injury in 2010, is 17-21 as the starter over this span with a 70:36 touchdown-to-interception ratio, including a league-high 19 picks last season. Everyone is feeling the heat in Big D, with head coach Jason Garrett at the top of the list. Romo’s not too far behind him, however, as the Cowboys’ faithful are fully expecting their quarterback to play like the big star on his helmet.
Cutler is entering the final year of his contract and there’s a new coaching staff in charge in the Windy City. The gunslinger doesn’t have to be worry about losing his job, provided he stays healthy. That said, this is a critical season for the 30-year-old, as new Bears’ head coach Marc Trestman and general manager Phil Emery have to decide whether he’s the long-term answer or not.
Cutler has won (34-22 during regular season) plenty of games for the Bears, but the 82:63 touchdown-to-interception ratio and less than 60 percent completion rate leave a lot to be desired. The team focused on addressing the offensive line (Cutler has been sacked 148 times in four seasons in Chicago) in free agency and through the draft, and also added a new weapon in tight end Martellus Bennett. There should be no more excuses as Cutler enters what’s basically an audition season for him.
5. Maurice Jones Drew, RB, Jacksonville Jaguars
Jones-Drew is entering the final year of his contract and at just 28 years old, he should be one of the top available free agents after this season provided he doesn’t re-sign with the Jaguars. However, a big payday for MJD is anything but a guarantee considering he played in just six games last season and had foot surgery in late December.
The 2011 NFL rushing champion needs to not only show that he’s healthy, but also that he can be the productive workhorse who averaged nearly 1,800 yards from scrimmage from 2009-11. The latter could be easier said than done considering the questions surrounding the Jaguars’ offense, but Jones-Drew needs to take full advantage of his opportunities and prove he’s still one of the league’s top offensive players, especially if he wants to get paid like one.
6. Danny Amendola, WR, New England Patriots
Amendola was already tasked with having to fill the big shoes of the departed Wes Welker, Tom Brady’s favorite target the past six seasons. His job has only gotten tougher, however, since Rob Gronkowski underwent back surgery and Aaron Hernandez got arrested and charged with murder, among other things.
The Patriots moved quickly to sign Amendola to a five-year, $31 million contract after Welker bolted for Denver, and it’s now on the former Ram to live up to it. For him to do that, however, the oft-injured wideout needs to stay on the field. Amendola has played in all 16 games just once in his four seasons. He missed all but one game in 2011 and five last season due to an assortment of injuries. His career bests of 85 catches, 689 yards and three touchdowns are also a far cry from the 112-1243-6 line Welker averaged in his six seasons in a Patriots uniform.
Not only did Harvin get his request for a change of scenery, getting traded from Minnesota to Seattle, he also got a new six-year, $67 million contract extension from the Seahawks. Now there are no more excuses for the 25-year-old all-purpose threat, as he becomes the No. 1 wide receiver for a team with Super Bowl aspirations.
Harvin was off to a great start last season before suffering an ankle injury (which ironically happened when the Vikings were in Seattle) that ended his 2012 campaign after just nine games. Harvin needs to stay healthy and produce for his new team, meaning he can ill afford to be hampered by the migraine issues he’s dealt with in the past or, more importantly, become a headache for the Seahawks.
8. Ed Reed, S, Houston Texans
Reed could have joined teammate Ray Lewis in walking away as a champion following the Ravens’ Super Bowl victory in the safety’s hometown of New Orleans. Instead, Reed chose to come back for a 12th season, as the free agent signed a three-year deal with Houston in his quest to match Lewis’ two Super Bowl rings by helping lead the Texans to the promised land.
The future Hall of Famer will turn 35 shortly after the start of the regular season and he had surgery in May on his hip to repair a torn labrum. At this point, it’s not known if Reed will be able go by Week 1, which would affect the Texans’ plans in the secondary.
Houston’s hope was that the perennial All-Pro would not only help shore up a passing defense that gave up 29 touchdown passes (only five teams gave up more) last season, but also mentor the younger members of the secondary, including second-round pick and fellow safety D.J. Swearinger. Reed can’t do either if he’s not healthy enough to practice, let alone play.
9. Hakeem Nicks, WR, New York Giants
After posting back-to-back 70-catch, 1,000-yard seasons in 2010 and ’11, a lucrative, long-term contract seemed all but a given for Nicks. The 2009 first-round pick, however, broke his foot last May and also was hampered by a nagging knee injury throughout his 2012 campaign.
Not surprisingly, Nicks’ production (53-692-3 in 13 G) fell dramatically last season, making this one critical as he enters the final year of his rookie contract. The Giants have already given out one big contract to a wide receiver, as they signed Victor Cruz to a five-year, $43 million extension earlier this week. Nicks will have to stay healthy and get back to his 2011 form (76-1192-7) if he wants the opportunity to sign a similar type of deal, with the Giants or any other team for that matter.
10. Ryan Mathews, RB, San Diego Chargers
Expectations were high for Mathews, who the Chargers traded up 16 spots to grab with the 12th overall pick of the 2010 draft. Anointed as the heir apparent to LaDainian Tomlinson, Mathews was named to the Pro Bowl in 2011 after rushing for 1,091 yards, but otherwise his career in San Diego has been marked by injuries. He has yet to play a full season, as his list of injuries includes two broken collarbones, both of which he sustained last season.
Last August, Mathews broke his right clavicle on his first carry in the first preseason game, which caused him to miss the first two games. He returned in Week 3, but was ineffective, as he averaged less than four yards a carry and didn’t have a single 100-yard game. He then broke his left collarbone in Week 15, finishing his 2012 campaign with only 707 yards rushing and a single touchdown in 12 games.
Not only is Mathews’ durability a concern, but the jury is still out on whether he can be a franchise running back. San Diego would like nothing more than for Mathews, who has two years left on his contract, to establish himself as the lead back. But with a new head coach (Mike McCoy) and offensive coordinator (Ken Whisenhunt) in place and free agent acquisition Danny Woodhead joining the backfield, it’s clear that the team is running out of patience with its former first-round pick.
11. DeMarco Murray, RB, Dallas Cowboys
Murray burst onto the scene as a rookie in 2011 when the third-round pick rushed for a Cowboys’ single-game record 253 yards against the Rams. Even more was expected of him entering last season, and he got off to a great start, gashing the defending Super Bowl champion Giants for 131 on the ground in a huge Week 1 win.
Things went downhill after that, however, as Murray didn't crack the century mark in any of his remaining games, and was limited to just 10 total because of a foot injury. The pressure is on in Dallas to not only win, but also get to the playoffs and make some sort of run. While most of the heat will be felt by head coach Jason Garrett and quarterback Tony Romo, this is an important season for Murray too.
The 25-year-old needs to show the team he’s the long-term answer in the backfield by staying on the field and getting back to the form he showed as a rookie when he averaged 5.5 yards per carry. Felix Jones is no longer on the roster, but the Cowboys did take Joseph Randle, who like Murray was one of the most productive running backs in the Big 12 during his collegiate career, in the fifth round of April's draft.
12. Dashon Goldson and Darrelle Revis, DBs, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Tampa Bay finished dead last in the NFL in passing defense last season, giving up nearly 300 yards per game through the air, along with surrendering 30 touchdown passes. Being in the same division with Atlanta and New Orleans makes a strong secondary a must, which is why the Buccaneers aggressively made over their defensive backfield during the offseason.
With the additions of Goldson and Revis, along with second-round pick Johnthan Banks, the Bucs have completely revamped its depth chart in the secondary. They also paid a hefty price to do so, however. Revis, the 2009 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, was acquired from the Jets for two draft picks, including Tampa Bay’s first-round selection this year. Goldson, an All-Pro with San Francisco last season, left the 49ers as a free agent and signed a five-year, $41.25 million deal to team with Revis in Tampa Bay.
Revis is coming back from the torn ACL that ended his 2012 campaign and needs to show he’s healthy. Goldson was one of many All-Pros on the 49ers’ defense and it remains to be seen if his success was more due to the company he kept. Besides playing the Falcons and Saints twice, the Bucs also will play the Patriots, Seahawks, Lions and 49ers this season, so there will be plenty of opportunities to find out if Goldson and Revis are difference-makers on defense or not.
13. Steven Jackson, RB, Atlanta Falcons
There’s no disputing Jackson’s reliability, as he’s put together an impressive eight straight 1,000-yard seasons. The question is, does he have another one in him? Even though he won’t turn 30 until later this month, the workhorse has amassed more than 2,000 carries over the last eight seasons.
The Falcons seem to think Jackson has plenty of tread left on his tires, since the team released Michael Turner and signed the former Ram as a free agent. The Falcons finished 29th in the league in rushing last season yet still made it to the NFC championship game. The team is hoping that Jackson has enough left in the tank to help carry them all the way to the Super Bowl this season.
14. Philip Rivers, QB, San Diego Chargers
In 2008, Rivers led the NFL in passer rating (105.5) and touchdown passes (34). Since then his passer rating has dropped each year, down to 88.6 last year, and he has turned the ball over 49 times over the last two seasons combined. As a result, the Chargers have missed the playoffs in each of the last three seasons and Mike McCoy is now in charge following the firing of Norv Turner.
Rivers is only 31 and he has a new offensive coordinator in former Arizona head coach Ken Whisenhunt. The hope is that Whisenhunt can do for Rivers what he did for Ben Roethlisberger when he was taken by the Steelers in the first round of the 2004 draft. Whisenhunt was the Steelers’ offensive coordinator at the time, and the duo helped bring another Super Bowl ring to Pittsburgh in Roethlisberger’s second season. Whether the Rivers-Whisenhunt union results in a Lombardi Trophy for San Diego remains to be seen, but Rivers needs to find his old form or the team will have no choice but to start looking for its next franchise quarterback.
15. Kenny Britt, WR, Tennessee Titans
Britt exploded out of the gates in 2011, leading the NFL with 14 catches for 271 yards (19.4 ypc) after the first two games. A torn ACL in the next game ended his season and everything has somewhat gone downhill from there. The 2009 first-round pick suffered a couple of setbacks in his return from knee surgery, resulting in additional operations, and he clearly wasn’t the same player last season. Britt caught just 45 passes for 589 yards (13.1 ypc) and four touchdowns in 14 games in 2012.
The talented wide receiver also has had his share of off-field issues, including multiple arrests and several other incidents that involved the police and resulted in him being suspended one game by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. Britt is entering the final year of his rookie contract and the Titans have taken a wide receiver in either the first or second round of the past two drafts. If there’s any wide receiver in the NFL who needs to stay out of trouble and put up big numbers, it’s Britt.
16. Vernon Davis, TE, San Francisco 49ers
In 2009, Davis earned a Pro Bowl invite after catching 78 passes for 965 yards and 13 touchdowns. His numbers have gone down every season since, dropping all the way to just 41 receptions for 548 yards and five touchdowns last season. In addition, Davis had nine games during the 2012 regular season in which he caught two or fewer passes.
The 49ers came up just short against the Ravens in last season’s Super Bowl and have every intention of making a return trip in 2013. To get there, Davis cannot disappear for long stretches like he did last season, especially with wide receiver Michael Crabtree already lost because of a torn Achilles tendon. Davis did end last season with back-to-back 100-yard games in the NFC Championship game and Super Bowl, so perhaps that’s a sign of things to come.
17. TE, New England Patriots
With Rob Gronkowski’s status for 2013 up in the air following June back surgery and Aaron Hernandez now incarcerated and no longer on the roster, the Patriots’ tight end situation is one gigantic question mark headed into training camp. Gronkowski and Hernandez combined for 106 receptions and 16 touchdowns last season, or nearly half of Tom Brady’s total (34) in 2012.
Gronkowski is still listed as No.1 on the depth chart on the team’s Web site, but there’s no guarantee as to when he will be ready to get back on the field. That leaves Michael Hoomanawanui and Daniel Fells, who combined for nine catches and 194 yards last seasons, as the next options with veteran Jake Ballard and undrafted free agents Brandon Ford and Nate Sudfeld also on the roster.
As has already been stated, tight end is an important component of New England’s offense. Whoever it is, someone needs to step up to fill the role that Hernandez did behind Gronkowki in recent seasons, if not carry the load until Gronkowski is back and 100 percent healthy. This is especially the case considering that Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd and Danny Woodhead are no longer on the roster. Combine these three with Gronkowski and Hernandez and you have 84 percent of the catches, 82 percent of the yards and 85 percent of the touchdown catches the Patriots’ offense produced in 2012.
18. Mark Sanchez, QB, New York Jets
What, you were expecting Tim Tebow? Before the Jets jettisoned Tebow, the team added to the ever-present quarterback controversy by drafting Geno Smith in the second round. It’s no secret that Sanchez’ days as the Jets’ starter are numbered. The only question that really remains is when and will Sanchez be able to show enough prior to that point to convince another team to give him a second chance?
Locker did miss five games last season because of a shoulder injury, but it’s what he did in his 11 (2,176-10-11, 56.4 completion percentage) starts that have him on this list. This will be just his second season as the Titans’ starter, but it’s clear that Locker needs to show he can get the job done this fall. For one, head coach Mike Munchak is starting to feel his own seat get a little warm, and the team signed former Buffalo starter Ryan Fitzpatrick in the offseason to backup Locker, at least for now. The early success of fellow first-round picks Cam Newton, Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III, not to mention Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson, only add to the pressure Locker is under this fall.
20. Josh Freeman, QB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Freeman bounced back from a disappointing 2011 campaign (16 TD, 22 INT) to throw for a career-high 4,065 yards and 27 touchdown passes. The 25-year-old is entering the final year of his rookie contract, so why is he feeling the heat? For starters, he completed less than 55 percent of his passes last season and has yet to put two productive seasons together. He’s also just 24-32 as a starter in Tampa and the Buccaneers drafted NC State’s Mike Glennon in third round of this year’s draft. Similar to Cutler, Freeman needs to show the league he can be a franchise quarterback, especially if Tampa Bay decides to not re-sign him after this season.
21. Jason Pierre-Paul, DE, New York Giants
The Giants’ first-round pick (15th overall) in 2010, Pierre-Paul exploded in his second season, racking up 16.5 sacks in helping the Giants win the Super Bowl in 2011. Last season, his production dipped dramatically (just 6.5 sacks), one of the reasons why the G-Men finished second-to-last in the entire NFL in total defense.
Pierre-Paul underwent back surgery in June, and while the 24-year-old has said he is expecting to be ready to go in Week 1, there’s an equally good chance he may miss the first game or two to start the season. The key for Pierre-Paul is that when does return to the field, that he also returns to the dominating form he showed in 2011.
The Giants added to their defensive line depth through both free agency and the draft, but it also took some hits with Osi Umenyiora and Chris Canty leaving via free agency. Justin Tuck’s sack production has declined in each of the past three seasons, making it even more critical that Pierre-Paul re-establish himself as one of the league’s most athletic, dynamic, and most of all, disruptive, defensive ends.
22. Anthony Spencer and DeMarcus Ware, DEs, Dallas Cowboys
After giving up the most yards in team history and missing the playoffs for the third straight season, Cowboys general manager/owner Jerry Jones decided to shake things up on defense. Coordinator Rob Ryan was fired and 73-year-old Monte Kiffin was hired as his replacement. Kiffin, who served as Tampa Bay’s defensive coordinator from 1996-2008, is switching the Cowboys from a 3-4 to a 4-3, which means several players will have to learn new positions.
Chief among these are Spencer and Ware, who will be shifting from linebacker to defensive end. This duo combined for 22.5 sacks last year, but now their roles will change somewhat as they move up front. Spencer enjoyed a career year last season, but the team opted to apply the franchise tag on him for a second season to keep him from being a free agent. The 29-year-old needs to produce again in hopes of landing that long-term deal that has eluded him so far. Then on Tuesday came word that Spencer will undergo minor knee surgery, which is expected to sideline him anywhere from two to four weeks.
Ware is second all-time in Cowboys history in sacks with 111, but he managed just 2.5 over his final eight games last season. He had offseason shoulder surgery and is vowing to become an elite pass-rusher again, but will have to do so from a new position. He also will turn 31 the end of this month.
Jones has made it clear he doesn’t want to finish 8-8 again this season. The change to the 4-3 puts more of an emphasis on the defensive line, so it will be up to Spencer and Ware to make sure they get the job done from their new position or it will be a bumpy transition for Kiffin’s unit.
No rookie has a tougher job this season than Brown. All the 23-year-old is being asked to do this season is to immediately step into the starting lineup as the middle linebacker of the defending Super Bowl champions to fill a spot that previously belonged to one of the greatest to ever play that position.
There is a reason the Ravens took Brown in the second round of April’s draft, and the comparisons between the former Kansas State star and Ray Lewis are inevitable and unavoidable. However, it is entirely unfair to expect the rookie to replace what Lewis meant to the Ravens, which goes well beyond what he did on the field.
Making things even tougher on Brown is the fact that Lewis is just one of six from the Ravens’ Super Bowl-winning starting lineup no longer on the roster. Brown does have veteran Terrell Suggs to help him get acclimated, but Elvis Dumervil, Dannell Ellerbe and Paul Kruger are all gone from the linebacking corps that helped Lewis claim his second Lombardi Trophy.
Brown may very well end up being an All-Pro-caliber linebacker. Unfortunately for him, the bar has already been set much higher.
24. Ryan Williams, RB, Arizona Cardinals
Williams was the second running back taken in the 2011 draft, behind only Mark Ingram (see below), but he’s yet to have any sort of impact on the field. The former Virginia Tech star has played in a total of five games so far, rushing for a meager 164 yards on 58 carries (2.8 ypc). A ruptured patella tendon wrecked his rookie season, while a shoulder injury ended his 2012 campaign in early October.
The Cardinals were so high on Williams coming out of college because of his quickness and ability to make would-be tacklers miss. The opportunity is still there for Williams in Arizona, but the sooner he can get back to his pre-injury form the better, especially with free agent signee Rashard Mendenhall expected to get the first crack at the starting job. The Cardinals also drafted running backs Stepfan Taylor (fifth round) and Andre Ellington (sixth) in April, adding even more competition for touches during training camp and the preseason.
25. Montee Ball, RB, Denver Broncos
How can a rookie be on the hot seat? When the team that drafted you has Super Bowl or bust expectations and is looking to you to lead the way on the ground, that’s how. The former Wisconsin touchdown machine wasn’t drafted until late in the second round, but Denver clearly has high expectations of him in his rookie season.
The team has already released Willis McGahee, last year’s starter, with Ball expected to fill that role this fall. His competition for the job figures to primarily be Ronnie Hillman, a third-round pick in 2012 who averaged less than four yards per carry as a rookie, and Knowshon Moreno, who is recovering from another significant knee injury, this one sustained in the Broncos’ playoff loss to the Ravens in January.
With Peyton Manning at quarterback and wide receiver Wes Welker added in the offseason, it’s not like Denver needs Ball to produce like Adrian Peterson. The running game, however, is a critical part to the Broncos’ offensive game plan and will need to be productive if the team wants to do what it was unable to last season – make it to the Super Bowl.
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